Yet more Twelfth Cake

I’m back! I’ve been lecturing like a beast, living on oatcakes and cheese as I drive around the country in my increasingly crumb-filled car. It’s Christmas, again, which means time for my annual plea to bring back the Twelfth Cake.

Really. Seriously. What IS the point of Christmas Cake? I adore it, I could wallow in it and eat it every day (always with cheese), but for many people its sort of lost its place in the world… We make them (or buy them), save them ’til Christmas’, and…then what? Friends come over – we feed them mince pies. Pre-Christmas festivities – we don’t want to broach the cake. Christmas day – we’re too full to eat it. And after Christmas there’s a slow, increasingly guilty feeling as we fail to broach the bugger and feel we should perhaps wait for some undefined special occasion. And snacking is bad, and sugar is the devil etc etc. Sigh. There is, however, a solution! This year, get your cake, unwrap it (or before you ice it – this may be a tad too late), upend it, and stick a dried pea and a bean in each side.  Plonk it back on the plate and decorate as per usual. The kicker is that you then save it, to be eaten with lovely people and lots of booze on Twelfth Night (6th January) while you all have a have a proper party to send out the season. (Obviously I am assuming no-one reading this does anything terrible like ‘dry’ January, or, even worse, ‘Veganuary’. Please. January is a TERRIBLE month. You need bacon and wine.)

Srsly, argh.
Srsly, argh.

…Ok, realistically it may be that even the thought of Twelfth Night is making you feel a bit queasy, what with next year possibly lining up to be even worse, on a global politics/world meltdown scale than this year, and in fact you want to bury your head in the cake right now, and now come up for breath – but I still feel we need to address this cake situation. How about going some way toward it?  You could still to the bean and pea thing? Right? With a crown from a cracker or the finder of the bean, or a small token of your esteem. Makes cutting the cake way cooler….

This year, I am singing the praises of Twelfth Cake in public not once, but twice. First up is Victorian Bakers at Christmas (airs Christmas Day at 9.30pm and repeated Boxing Day), and next up is a special, 12th Night themed episode of The Kitchen Cabinet on January 7th at 10.30am, recorded at the Banqueting House in London. I am bound to be asked for the recipes, so here they are. Enjoy.

For Bakers, we were looking at an 1840s Christmas, when Twelfth Cake was really at its peak (see my previous post on the subject).The bakers were tasked with making cake for all, not just the fashionable bon ton who could afford the beautiful concoctions sometimes featured at heritage sites, but  the riff and the raff and everyone in between. Their cakes needed to be quick to make and decorate, and easy to sell – bright, fun, and funky. Inspired by the lurid descriptions of the time, the results were utterly joyous, and when the shop window was dressed it was so spot on that it made me very happy.

The shop.
The shop.

The cake recipe was from The Knight Family Cookbook, which is linked to Jane Austen through her brother, and was reprinted as a facsimile by Chawton House a few years ago.

To Make a Great Cake (a note in the margin reads ‘good cake’)

Take 5 quarts of fine flower, a pound of fine sugar beaten, half an ounce of mace, 3 nutmegs, a few cloves, a little cinnamon all well beaten, 8 pounds of currance, & a pound of raisons of the sun stoned and shred, mix all of these in the dry flower; then take 3 gills of cream, 3 pounds and a half of butter melted in it, almost a quart of new ale yeast, 20 eggs which beat with the yeast well together & strained in. Then put a jack of brandy [a jack is half a gill] into the cream & butter, so pour it to the rest blood warm, & mix it lightly with your hands. It must be about as stiff as a hasty pudding, so beat it with your hands a good while, & have ready half a pound of candied lemon & half a pound of citron cut into pieces. Then put your cake into your hoop with 3 or 4 papers at the bottom. If your hoop be half a yard over it will do – when you have put in some of your cake, show in some of the candied lemon and citron, then put in more of the cake, then the rest of the sucket, then the rest of the cake, then cut t over with a knife or it will crack, but don’t prick it at all. This cake is very subject to scorch, so when it colours lay a paper over it. It must stand in the oven full 2 hours, longer if it be thick when almost cold ice it.

I love the wording of this recipe, from the hoop half a yard across (we had to commission one), to the assumption that the cook knows the texture of a hasty pudding (thick batter). It speaks volumes that the writer assumes blood warm makes perfect sense – which it did to me, who spends half my life reading recipes like this, but it confused a couple of the bakers. And teh use of the term suckets for candied lemon and citron is a throwback to the 17th century and earlier, and, along with the use of yeast as the raising agent, hints at the longevity of this kind of recipe. Clearly if you decide to make it, scale it down.

For The Kitchen Cabinet, we were going all 17th century, in keeping with the glories of the Banqueting House venue (THAT CEILING!). Thus the recipe which I chose for the show was an earlier one (though the above would have been around then, easily). I also inserted tokens into the cake, whereas for Bakers, set 200 years later, we played with cut up Twelfth Night Character cards. The tokens were based on the list given in Bridget Henisch’s Cakes and Characters, where she quotes Henry Teonge, recounting a party at sea in 1676: ‘we had much mirth on board, for we had a Great Cake made, in which we put a bean for the king, a pea for the Queen, a clove for the knave, a forked stick for the cuckold, and a rag for the slut’. (Pepys records similar shenanigans, but he rigged it so that a friend of his under investigation for fraud got the clove…)

Rubens celebrating James I as an actual god. Because the 17th century has done it ALL before.
Rubens celebrating James I as an actual god. Because the 17th century has done it ALL before.

Again, the cake is yeast-risen, and packed with fruit and booze. Neither recipe contains much sugar; a reflection of the high cost of sugar before the late 18th century. Both benefit from a little while to rise, this more than the former. This one is somewhat bread-ier, and keeps less well (hence the ground almonds, which improve keeping qualities), but it is also slightly lighter, and was eaten by the audience before any of the panellists got a look-in. It’s from John Nott’s Cook’s Dictionary (1726).

To make an extraordinary Plum Cake

Take five pound of flour, two pound of butter, put the butter into the flour, five pound of currants, a large nutmeg, three quarters of an ounce of mace, and a quarter of an ounce of cloves, finely grated and beat; take three quarters of a pound of sugar, twelve eggs, leaving out three whites, put in a pint of ale yeast; then warm as much cream as will wet it, and pour some sack to your cream, and make it as thick as batter; then pownd three quarters of a pound of almonds, with sack and orange flower water, beat them but grossly; add a pound of candy’d citron, orange and lemon-peel, mix’d all together; put a little paste at the bottom of your hoop, and put it in.

Again, the language is revealing, though less old-fashioned than the manuscript recipe: tidied up, perhaps, for a modern reading audience. The paste at the bottom of the hoop is a nifty idea to stop the bottom burning, and doubles as a cake board when the thing is served. It’s a trick I’ve found in Victorian books as well, and it’s an easy way round having to cut bits of wood to shape or find silver platters upon which to serve your cake if you are trying to be vaguely in keeping with periods before foil-covered cardboard cake boards. Agnes Marshall even has a recipe specifically for cake bottom pastry.

Oh! And to prove I put my money where my mouth is, I have made all of my Christmas Cakes into Twelfth Cakes this year, peas and beans in every one. Some have, however, already been consumed…

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Yes, they were vaguely themed: this one is vaguely Tudor (and uses Tudor sugarplate)
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C18th gum plate.
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I made myself a Greedy Queen cake, AND?
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More sugarplate, different recipe, new moulds.
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From a book from 1904. STILL a TWELFTH CAKE, OK.
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The early C18th version. M insisted we try one to check they were edible and it was gone in minutes.

 

Happy Christmas!

 

The recipes, side by side, for scaling purposes.

Knight Family Cookbook

10 pints of flour, 1lb caster sugar, 1/2oz mace, 3 nutmegs, few cloves, bit cinnamon, 8lb currants, 1lb raisins, 12 fl oz cream, 3 1/2 lb butter, 2pt ale yeast (or fresh yeast mixed into a blend of weak beer and water), 10 medium eggs (or 20 pullets’ eggs), 2 fl oz brandy, 8oz candied lemon peel, 8 oz candied citron peel,

I tend to do an eighth for a standard 12 inch cake tin. Note the liquid measurement for a dry foodstuff in the flour.

Nott

5lb flour, 2lb butter, 5lb currants, 1 nutmeg, 3/4oz mace, 1/4oz cloves, 12oz sugar, 6 medium eggs (12 pullets), leaving out 2 whites (3 whites), 1pt ale yeast (or weak beer and water mixed with fresh yeast – or dried), glug of sherry or brandy, orange flower water, 12oz ground almonds, 1lb candied mixed peel.

I quarter this and it’s pretty ample.

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I LOVE EUROVISION

It’s the Eurovision Song Contest this weekend. If you are not hanging up the bunting and getting in the booze, then you are missing out, in my view. Especially at the moment, watching all the mud-slinging of the Brexit/Bremain stuff, I sort of despair. I adore Eurovision. Always have. To me, it’s a chance to celebrate all the good things about Europe – cultural diversity, shared experiences, and, above all, a sense of massive fun. In the UK, we tend to look toward America for our foreign music, and I still remember the shock and mild horror when I realised that French radio played a lot of French music – and Spanish, and German, and whatever was popular in the European club scene at the time. Eventually I came to enjoy it, and I still listen to as much French music as I do English, I suspect. I shan’t rehearse all the reasons why Eurovision is BRILLIANT here, (though I shall direct you to this radio show with by the Swedish Ambassador, which is very good), but suffice to say that, while the top-rated songs are generally genuinely good (not always- I’m looking at YOU very bad Polish butter-makers in 2014 – terrible, terrible technique), it’s the mixture of great – average – dire and sheer WTF which makes the whole evening such a joy.

I am head down writing chapters of A Greedy Queen like a demon at the moment, so I shall make the rest of this post pithy. Here’re my favourite songs, and, as the point of this blog is to muse in a historically meaningful way, some suggestions of what to cook to celebrate them in a suitably ye olde way:

Austria: OK, I LIKE THIS SONG. How about Kaiser-Schmarn, from Countess Morphy’s Recipes of All Nations? It’s a pancake on LSD – 1/2lb of flour, 1/2 pint of cream, sugar, eggs, raisins, salt and butter. I ate a modern version last year while on the Great Austria Trip and it was immense. Countess Morphy is also immense, as she’s a fake Countess, and wrote what is, in my view, one of the best cookery books of the 20th century. In an amazing departure from every academic norm ever, I refer you to the Wikipedia entry, which has been edited by a crack team based around the Oxford Food Symposium, and therefore is one of only about ten accurate food history articles on the web.

France: Inevitably. I am the only person I know who liked Twin Twin’s Moustache. For France we can delve into the 18th century, as high end cooking was all French influenced at that stage. I’d like to offer up wine chocolate, published in John Nutt’s Cook’s Dictionary of 1726. The French drank a lot of chocolate, and this one has booze in, which you tend to need about halfway through the first song. Anyway, take a pint of sherry, or a pint and a half of red port, four ounces and a half of chocolate, six ounces of fine sugar, and half an ounce of white starch, or fine flour; mix, dissolve, and boil all these as before. But, if your chocolate be with sugar, take double the quantity of chocolate, and half the quantity of sugar; and so in all. I use rice flour as the starch and it’s divine.

Belgium: She’s a sort of foil-clad Kylie. Fun. Go for Brussels Biscuits, which were Princess Victoria’s favourite snack when she was recovering from illness in 1835. Essentially they are a rusk made of brioche dough. Additive. If you seriously want to try them, ping me a comment and I can send the recipe. It’s going in the book…..

Australia: good on the Australians for taking it seriously enough to send a really good song, and being undecided enough to only send her with only half a dress. We’ll plump for an 1880s Beeton recipe, which I suspect no-one ever cooked: parrot pie. It’s the same as pigeon pie (steak, egg, bird), so clearly adapted for a hypothetical Antipodean audience (or possibly just friends and family at home) based on existing recipes, and decorated in the same way with feet sticking out of the lid except….feathers. Love it. It’s as flamboyant and unreal as the whole contest.

parrot pie beeton 88
Can also be made with parakeets.

I should probably admit that my actual menu for my own evening with friends is not exactly this. It’s entirely modern, unusually for me, and rather random. I’ve got recipes representing the UK (Kay Plunkett-Hogg’s Xinjang Lamb), Sweden (Swedes are involved in about half of the entries, so it’s kind of broad – Bronte Aurell’s Cinnamon Buns), France (Pierre Hermé’s excruciatingly complicated macarons),and Israel except also France (taboulé, which I learnt to cook in Paris). I have Austrian, Spanish and French wines though…and German, British and Belgian beers.

Music should be enjoyable, right? (NOT YOU, GEORGIA), and so should food. A winning combination. Here’s to Eurovision, 2016!

 

 

In praise of the pudding

Puddings have been in the news a bit recently. Apparently there’s a puddings only restaurant opening somewhere in London, and it’s hitting the zeitgeist. I was quite excited by this idea, and then I read this article, which gives more details, and shows that there is one fundamental problem. The restaurant only serves sweet dishes. What? What is this infantile bollocks, quoth I, enraged. This is not pudding!

Puddings are not sweets, or desserts. Desserts – in the modern world – can be puddings, as can sweets, but they can also be not-puddings. They can be cakes, or tarts, or patisserie, or ice cream, or jellies, or blancmanges, or trifles. Puddings are puddings, and, although I fear I might be a rather lonely voice in the wilderness, I think when we conflate the word pudding with sweet stuff after dinner, we lose something very vital in doing so. Puddings, you see, can be sort-of-tarts, and they can be a-bit-like-cake, and you can certainly get some stunning iced puddings which head down the ice cream route – oh and blancmanges started life as kind-of-puddings…but puddings are so, so much more. Most importantly, they don’t have to be sweet. Indeed, my favourite puddings aren’t sweet at all. Sausage roly poly pudding, steak and kidney pudding, chicken and ham pudding… I mean, treacle pudding and that 1890s chocolate pudding I really like are all very well, but nothing – really, nothing – can truly beat a good suet crust (especially when baked, in my view: all that crispy exterior and gooey interior and sense of wellbeing).

So what is a pudding? Well, it’s hard to define, it’s anything you want it to be, really. Puddings probably started life as sort-of-sausages, and the word may or may not be related to the French boudin. Haggis is pudding (sheep’s pluck pudding, an early modern favourite was cooked all over the place, and not just in Scotland where it would find its eventual apogee). Black pudding is pudding, as is white pudding (sometimes savoury, sometimes custard-based and sweet). Batter pudding, originally cooked under the roast on a spit, and, like haggis, eventually associated only with one region (Yorkshire), is pudding. Plum pudding, once eaten with the roast and now a sad reminder of more broad-minded attitudes to food in the past; that’s a pudding. And so is sticky toffee pudding, and sponge cake pudding, and toad-in-the-hole and pigeon-in-the-hole), and Eve’s pudding, and bread and butter pudding (try adding marmalade; oh my word), and dumplings, and rice pudding. Man alive! I hear you cry! What is a pudding? For me, it’s a feeling. And it’s very, very British. (The French, the leaders of cuisine from the 18th century onwards, don’t have a word for pudding. It’s le poudding – a bit like le five o clock, for afternoon tea).

Anyway, definitions are for the faint-hearted. I was recently asked to write the foreword for a brilliant book on puddings, by the photographer, writer, cook and blogger Regula Ysewijn (@missfoodwise on Twitter). It’s an absolutely gorgeous book – I hadn’t realised how fabulous it would be, old master-style photography and all, when I penned my minor contribution. If you are into puddings, it’s definitely worth a look. Regula’s book explains puddings from the point of view of a self-confessed Anglophile (she’s Belgian), and, to me, this outsider’s view of a British culinary staple brings a real richness to the text. We don’t celebrate our food heritage enough, still, in this country. Puddings are a joke: we have ‘pudding stomachs’ (we don’t. Stop it. Grow up), and people are ‘pudding-shaped’. What a shame. Puddings are fab. We should celebrate them, and love them, and treat them like as the endless source of delicious delight that they are.

In typically perverse form, having salivated all over my advance copy of Regula’s tome, I went away and cooked one of my own favourite puddings. It’s not in a published book, but in a handwritten manuscript from Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. It belonged to Jemima, Marchioness Grey (1723-1797), so the recipe probably dates to the mid-18th century. It took me a while to work it out, and there’s no doubt that the result could be called a lemon tart as much as pudding, but it was a pudding to Jemima, so it’s pudding to me.

This is the original recipe:

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Stunningly readable handwriting. Georgians win vs Victorians on that score nearly every time.

Take 2 lemmons, scrape ye inside clean out, boyle ye rinds til they be tender. When they are cold, beat the, to a pulp with 3/4lb of butter, then mix up with 10 yolks of eggs and 3/4lb loaf sugar, finely powdered. Beat them together half an hour. Butter the dish and paste it to set it in ye oven. Half an hour will bake it. You may make orange pudding the same way.

If you want to cook it, it’s both ridiculously easy and fiendishly difficult. For the lemons I use lemons I’ve previously juiced – and I sometimes use 3 if they are the very small ones you get in modern supermarkets. Also, eggs were smaller then, so use pullets’ or bantams’ eggs, or halve the amount stated here. The full amount of mixture will easily fill two standard sized flan tins, so scale accordingly. And yes, a food processor works just fine for the beating part.

 

Proper pastry. A faff, but its worth it.

 

Sparkle 100%
Eggs, eggs, eggs…

Through trial and error, I have worked out a method which works for me. You may well choose to do it differently, but for what it’s worth, here’s what I do. I make exceedingly excellent pastry (hand cut in the butter, full-on pâté brisée, all the care and attention in the world), as it deserves it (normally I use a food processor and it’s fine, but not exceedingly excellent); and I blind bake it for about forever. I also make a lid separately and bake that as well. (You can buy a cunning lattice lid cutter if you make it, or other cut-lid tarts, regularly. Or you can leave the lid off.) Once I’ve glooped the mixture into the pastry case, I cook it very slowly – 160 degrees for about 30-40mn until just cooked through. Any faster or hotter and it will crack and separate (mine invariably does this, except this once, but it’s is still bloody lovely, to be honest). It rises, soufflé-like, so I tend to stand a tray under it. Once done, I plonk the lid on immediately, so it fuses to it as it settles.

 

The final article

Warning: it is very lemony, especially when served chilled, or it should be. As my grandmother used to say, it’ll draw your arse up to your elbows, and that’s the point. There is no room for lemon with meringue in my world.

 

Potty about Pancakes

I like pancakes. I like their simplicity and their versatility. They are quick, cheap, and endlessly edible, as there really isn’t a limit as to what can be put with them. But we don’t tend to eat pancakes very often, and it’s sad. The association of pancakes with Shrove Tuesday (more usually known, let’s face it, as Pancake Day), is so overwhelming that, for many people, eating pancakes on another day would be as remarkable as eating turkey when it’s not Christmas. But pancakes are lovely! (And turkey is vile). The modern neglect of them in Britain is just weird. Bring back the pancake!

The Shrove Tuesday thing is understandable. Lots of countries have edible rituals associated with the day before the Lenten fast starts, and many of them centre around treat foods, such as waffles or buns and cakes. The usual explanation is that these foods use up the animal products which are in the house before 40 days of fast. Well, yes, except that an organised household would have run these things down anyway, and eggs last weeks, and Sundays were exempt from the animal product prohibition. Lent, if you were practising a medieval style fast, would have been fairly tedious, and it was long. Far longer than the Advent fast, the other biggie in the Catholic calendar at that point. (Though, to be fair, the diet of most people would have been fairly tedious anyway). I suspect the joyous eating of Pancake Day and Fat Tuesday and the like has more to do with a mental hair-letting-down in preparation for a lengthy bout of seriousness, but one which quickly became enshrined in medieval codes of conduct. There’s a fair amount of fun to be had beyond the pancakes themselves: pancake races started in some places by the 15th century, and that’s always a laugh. Most of the modern ones are exactly that, by the way – modern – but still amusing.

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Inter-livery pancake race outside the London Guildhall, 2015

Pancakes are a pretty good food to centre a party around, if you want that party to be open to everyone. They’ve become codified in British culture as a white flour-based batter, enriched with eggs, with milk as the liquid agent. But that’s a conception that really only took firm hold as the number of occasions upon which we ate them dwindled to that one day. You only have to glance across the channel at France to see how wrong-headed we are on this one. The Breton crêperie is an absolute institution, and a reliable standby for cheap, quick fodder, centred around a predictable menu. The Bretons were to France as the Irish were to Britain: viewed as a poverty-stricken, barely educated mass, perfect for supplying labour to factories and mills, and servants to the middle and upper classes. But where the Bretons went, their food came too, and that meant crêpes and their savoury equivalent, the galette. They were food for the poor, made of easy available cereal crops, ground to flour and mixed with any available liquid and and egg if possible. Galettes are normally made of buckwheat flour. But they remain a pancake, really, and pancakes can be made of anything.

The first pancakes were probably prehistoric. Because they can be made of anything, wherever people settled, they could grind something to a powder and add it to liquid. Tapioca, spelt, einkorn, rye…all these newly fashionable ancient grains work in an unleavened batter, to be cooked on a stone or, later, metal griddle. So too do ground cassava, potato, rice, chickpeas etc. Throughout the world, there are pancakes, and the vast majority do not conform to the British norm. And that’s even without widening the definition to include chemically leavened griddled products. Or fried dumplings. Or fritters. Many types, such as American style pancakes, only properly developed only after the mid-19th century and the popularisation of baking powers. The same goes for crumpets, pikelets, and drop scones (although some variants did exist, using yeast and demanding a proper prove).

Pancakes were a universal food, a fairly neutral base to which other ingredients could be added to make a meal – cheese, ham, potatoes were the most obvious savoury additions in most of Europe, while sugar, spice and preserves made for a sweet course. This latter set formed the basis for the upper class pancake, enabling the pancake to hold a fairly rare position in the culinary sphere. With very little tweaking of the basic foodstuff, it was able to be both poverty food and elite food at the same time.

The elite versions had been around forever – the Roman writings of Apicius contain a recipe for a pancake-like thing (the amounts are characteristically vague, so it could also be an omelette, custard, or cake), which uses pepper and honey. By the medieval period they were sufficiently common that writers referred to them with an assumption that the reader knew what they were. Indeed, the thin British form became a metaphor: flat as a pancake. 18th and 19th century cookery authors used them as a universal culinary marker, instructing that batters should be ‘of the consistency of pancake batter’, and that things should be ‘the thinness of a pancake’. Posh pancakes as they developed in the 17th and 18th centuries are delightful. The early ones used brandy, wine or ale as the liquid agent, frequently with sweet spices in the better as well. By the late 18th century, the ubiquitous cream tended to be used instead, though often with a generous glug of brandy or sweet wine as well. A typical recipe comes from Robert May in 1660:

Take three pints of cream, a quart of flour, five eggs, salt, three spoonfuls of ale, a race of ginger, cinnamon as much, strain these materials, then fry and serve them with fine sugar.

However, if you want a historic pancake recipe to really make your senses sing with joy, try this, from Frederick Nutt’s Imperial and Royal Cook (1809):

Pink coloured Pancakes: Boil beat-root till tender, and then beat it fine in a mortar; add the yolks of four eggs, two spoonfuls of flour, and three or four of cream; sweeten it, and grate in half a nutmeg: add a glass of brandy: mix all well together, and fry your pancakes in butter: garnish them with green sweetmeats.

I am organising a crack team of live interpreters, who will be cooking and talking about Georgian food at Kew Palace over some of the Easter weekend. You can rest assured that they will be making that one. Pink pancakes!

Pancakes, therefore, can be anything, to anyone. If you plan to make them this Tuesday, and you see them as a novelty to be cooked once a year, you are doing yourself a disservice. Fillings, flours, liquids…stacks, rolls, wedges….the possibilities are endless. Oh and the Fear Of Tossing? Escoffier tosses. Others flip. Or turn. Or even make them so thin they don’t need cooking on the other side. Toss if you want to (there can be advantages, as it’s quick and if it works, the thing won’t stick, like particularly evil clingfilm, to itself). But don’t feel obliged. And if all else fails, the Austrians do a thing called Kaiserschmarren, which is pancakes chopped up or pulled apart, so that they look like good scrambled eggs, but taste like heaven. There is a solution to every cooking fail.

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Kaiserschmarren. Breakfast of Emperors.

NB: If you do try the above, remember that eggs were smaller then, and use 2/3 of the amounts – and as small as you can get.
Further reading:

Ken Albala (2008) Pancake: A Global History
Harold McGee (2010) Keys to Good Cooking
Darra Goldstein and Sidney Mintz (2015) The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

Garden birds…as dinner.

I do love the birdies. Especially at this time of year, when they are the only thing with any life in it left in my garden. I’ve installed two feeding stations in the garden, plus nest boxes, bug houses, bird baths…you name it. My excuse for not clearing away the dead Jerusalem artichoke stems, tansy bushes and cardoon heads is that the birds might like them. I don’t garden with chemical fertilisers or weedkillers (laziness as much as principles I feel honour-bound to admit), and I will happily spend hours watching the goldfinches and the chaffinches flutter to the feeders, and the robins fight each other, and the blackbirds peck up the contents of my carefully filled pots. Nearly all of my feathered friends are protected by various Wildlife Protection Acts, and quite right too. They are a delight to watch, and are part of the reason for my ongoing cat hatred. Yet many of these small bundles of joy are, apparently, delicious. Obviously I’ve not tried them, referring back to the aforementioned Protection Acts, but for many centuries we ate pretty much anything that flew, walked or crawled (except carrion eaters – that seems to be the universal exception), and that included garden birds. So, looking out of the window and into my books, what would have been on the menu?

1. Pigeon (and dove)

One type of garden bird I have no objection to eating – indeed, I go out of my way to procure and scoff the little bastards, and that is pigeon. Here is why.

Bastard pigeon. I have since stopped this bad habit by a mixtue of string, wire and WD40.

They aren’t supposed to be able to do that. They also waddle around under the feeders, trampling the lawn and the plants, and generally acting like the flying dustbins they are. Oh, and whenever the windows have been cleaned, they crash into them, leaving massive white marks on them. I wouldn’t mind if they crashed and died, so I could eat them, but they invariably live. Only once have a retrieved one which hit the window at the wrong angle, and broke its neck. I put it out of its misery and had it as a starter the next day.

But pigeons are obvious. We still eat pigeons. They are a way to get gamey flavours and a hearty punch of dark meat when other game is forbidden by game laws (which came in in the 1830s, but I suspect gamekeepers observed an informal semi-embargo surfing breeding season even before that). They are delicious, and they are manageable – small, yes, but not so small that you can’t get a decent mouthful or two from them. Other birds are a tad more challenging.

2. Very very dodgy but occasionally you meet people who have eaten them: rooks

It is illegal to shoot rooks to eat. There’s some allowance, under licence, for farmers who need to cull for crop management purposes, though usually this somewhat grey area seems to apply more to crows and magpies. However, a quick web trawl suggests that there are a few people out there who use the cull to obtain a few rooks for the pot. I’ve come across older people who clearly recall parents or relatives going out after rooks, especially in the rationing era. Pie seems to have been the usual way to eat rooks, and is certainly a recipe with a long tradition. The birds need taking young, after they fledge, but before they fly the nest completely. Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (1883) says, ‘the rook affords a dry and coarse meat. A pie made of young rooks is tolerable; at least, it is the best form for using these birds for food.’ As with other written instructions for preparing them, it is firm that the cook should remove the bitter-tasting spine, and really, that only the breasts are worth eating. That said, I met a lady recently who said that rook pie was divine. Maybe some of the sniffiness was due to its association with foraging – and hence poverty.

3. Illegal fodder: ‘small byrdes

The main bird I always think of in this category is larks, which are ubiquitous in recipe books and in lists of banquet food from the Romans onwards. The Romans are most known for having larks’ tongues, which in their very fiddliness and (arguably) pointlessness were a clear indicator of wealth. I’ve eaten ducks’ tongues, which are about a zillion times bigger and was entirely underwhelmed. Small birds in general were widely consumed until around the 17th century in Britain. If you look at the records of medieval banquets, ‘small byrdes’, appear fairly frequently. Finches, wagtails, warblers, thrushes, starlings, blackbirds – all featured on the menu. Pierre Blot, in A Handbook of Practical Cookery (1867) gives a list of birds eaten in the French repertoire which includes robins, blackbirds, fig-pecker, lapwing, meadow lark, plover, thrush, ‘and other small birds’. It’s a fairly good indication of birds worth eating. The French still eat (illegally) a number of small birds – most notoriously ortolan. Martins, wheatears and sparrows are also mentioned in earlier recipe books.

By the 18th century, published recipe references to eating small birds become less frequent. Some, like starlings, are extremely infrequent anyway. Of course, not having a published recipe doesn’t mean people weren’t still eating them, but it seems that their consumption became less common, especially for the rich, whose cuisine is largely represented in published cookery books. Reasons for this are varied. Improved farming practices, the perceived patriotism of beef, and, I suspect the growing association of eating small garden birds with the poor. By the 18th century, draconian laws were in place to stop the poor eating larger game – hare, deer, pheasant, partridge etc – so they become the prestige choice. The rich did stick to their larks – did they just taste SO GOOD? but other birds disappear from the printed record. One, late reference to garden birds comes from Francatelli’s Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1861). He recommended ‘A Pudding made of Small Birds’, and went on to suggest that, ‘industrious and intelligent boys who live in the country, are mostly well up in the cunning art of catching small birds at dd times during the winter months’. This shallot-and-sparrow- laden pie was something rather different to the kind of thing being envisaged up the social scale. Here’s a lark croustade from one of Francatelli’s other books, The Modern Cook.

The croustade is a hollowed out bread chalice.....of course!
The croustade is a hollowed out bread chalice…..of course!



Further reading

BASC website on seasons and licences.

BBQ tips from Georgian cooks

The new series of The Kitchen Cabinet is here – yay! In keeping with the bank holiday tradition of having a ridiculously late lunch of half cooked meat with a tang of firefighting fluid, we discussed barbecuing. I brought one of these with me.

A gridiron. (American, 1890)
A gridiron. (American, 1890)

I’ve been asked a few times about the history of barbecuing: where it originates, why it’s so inexplicably gendered, and why so much of the stuff turned out on BBQ’s in the UK is crap (ok, I made that last bit up, but I had a fairly traumatising occasion last year involving poultry, charcoal, and the clear need for a meat thermometer. It could have ended in A&E). It has a long, complicated, and increasingly disputed history. The OED suggests etymological origins from Portugal, with the word itself entering the English language by the seventeenth century. You can find early English recipes in most eighteenth century cookery books, such as this one, from Henderson (c.1800):

BBQ pig, Georgian style. It's quite nice.
BBQ pig, Georgian style. It’s quite nice.

Here, the specificity doesn’t lie in the technique – it’s just roasted meat – but in a mixture of the ingredients, the basting, and the use of the contents of the drip pan to make a sauce. We’d recognise the application of direct heat to a lump of meat and the dousing in a spicy sauce as being part of modern day barbecuing. Elsewhere, the term is used to indicate the grilling of meat over a fire on a platform or piece of apparatus constructed for the purpose. Again, something we’d sort of recognise today.

(Incidentally, grilling is in in the old English and modern American sense of heat from below, rather than modern English heat from above. Today we use grill for top heat, Americans use broil. We used to use broil for top heat too. Etc.).

Barbecue as a term continues to crop up throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century in English-authored cookery books, and it would be plausible to see a link between the fairly basic techniques of grilling and roasting on open fires with some form of sauce, and the development of modern BBQ, which is overwhelmingly associated with countries which were colonised and/or opened up by westerners in the same period. Australia, New Zealand and, of course, America, in particular the Deep South, also have the benefits of having a climate which makes the development of BBQ techniques and recipes not only feasible, but necessary – put simply, in a country like Britain, where you can reasonably only BBQ three or four times a year, BBQ can only ever remain a bit of a novelty. Elsewhere, it’s a quotidian cookery method. There’s a strong argument, however, that BBQ was (and is) a pretty low-tech way to cook, and that, for that reason, in America, it was the very poor, especially rural poor who really elaborated the techniques and flavours. And yes, very poor, and rural poor, in the Deep South, means slaves and their descendants. There were, of course African antecedents – but let’s face it, every culture armed with food and fire and a basic ability to construct a bit of kit has traditions involving open fire cookery. There’s an excellent article on this subject by Michael Twitty from The Guardian here, and a piece on the tension between modern, white BBQ  champions and the real heritors of many of the historic aspects of BBQ on the BBC here.

BBQ, then, historically, is just cooking. English recipes clearly show that, even if its origins may have been in outdoor, open-fire cookery, the term was quickly applied to kitchen-based cookery. In America, where it stayed outside, it was still everyday cookery. So how on earth did we get to a stage where, in the UK at least, it has become a weirdly gendered, and very specific style, of ruining your lunch?

I think part of it comes down to open fires disappearing from our homes. BBQ doesn’t have much of a presence in formal food writing, at least, in the twentieth century, until the 1960s. Of course, many homes still had open fires for heating at that point, but fires for cooking on were increasingly rare. Rare, mildly dangerous things, especially those involving physical labour and special gadgets aren’t naturally gendered – nothing is – but sadly they tend to be written about in gendered terms and marketed toward men. By the late 60s and 70s, when BBQ recipes and techniques were starting to appear in cookery books, the gender division was already clear, along with the cunning ploy of selling extra kit to naive cooks. Here’s Marguerite Patten’s Book of Savoury Cooking (1961), and The Good Housekeeping Camping Caravan Cookery Book (1978):

A man and his bird.
A man and his bird.
I'd be more impressed with a really big G&T and lots of camembert.
I’d be more impressed with a really big G&T and lots of camembert.

Pshaw, I say. It’s all a load of rubbish, I hear you cry! Well, of course. We have absolutely no need for heaps of special tools for cooking stuff in a way in which was the only way of cooking stuff for quite a lot of centuries. A modern day standard charcoal BBQ is just a chafing stove. Here’s one at Kew Palace.

kew
Kew Palace chafing stoves, c.1730

Gosh! A grill with charcoal in, and stuff cooking on top! Hmm. Which brings me to my last point. I have had some really good food cooked on BBQs (I’m not even going never the idea of gas BBQs here, by the way – just, no). I’ve even had good food cooked on BBQs in the UK. But generally it’s still a heady mixture of raw and burnt, firelighter flavoured and served with poor quality bread baps and sodding iceberg lettuce. But how to better the British BBQ experience? Well, if you think of your BBQ as a chafing stove and basic roasting apparatus, it does rather help. Here are my top (historically influenced) tips:

1. BBQs enable most of us to get as close to proper roasting as we will ever come. If you’ve a kettle BBQ, you can use indirect heat to roast a joint. If you’ve a more basic beast, buy a spit mechanism (about a tenner in French supermarkets from April to September). Then you can do this:

Chicken on a spit. It works better if you put the coals underneath really, but I was experimenting.
Chicken on a spit. It works better if you put the coals underneath really, but I was experimenting.

2. It’s a grill. Grill stuff. Hence the gridiron I opened with. Use the same techniques you would use in a top heat grill attached to an oven. Presumably you don’t usually serve half raw chicken legs from the grill, right? (Sorry – honestly, it was a terrible evening and the memories just burn).

3. It’s a stove. You can make sauces. Like this:

2015-08-09 17.43.54
You can use a normal pan. Though clearly a 3-legged earthenware pot helps to ‘look the part’.

4. Buy a meat thermometer. Please.
For more BBQ fun, the podcast of The Kitchen Cabinet is available via iPlayer, iTunes and all the usual suspects. Or the dedicated webpage is here.

Sham ham and other stories

I accidentally acquired a new mould at the weekend. I say, ‘accidental’,, but clearly I walked into a shop, ogled, lusted after and paid money for, said mould, so it didn’t exactly fall into my sticky mitts or anything. However, on Friday I had no idea I needed a new mould, and by Saturday evening I was convinced I couldn’t have lived without it. Here it is:

Ham mould, c.1890. Photo from the Appleby Antiques website (it's lethal for food historians)
Ham mould, c.1890. Photo from the Appleby Antiques website (it’s lethal for food historians)

Isn’t it lovely?! Somewhat co-incidentally, I’d recently rediscovered this picture, of a surprise sweet entremets, from Garrett’s Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery, c.1895.

IMG_-4z6lgdA sweet entremets came about 3/4 way through an à la Russe meal, of the kind Garrett would have had in mind. As a diner, you’d already have ploughed through hors d’oeuvres, soup, fish, a savoury entrée, a roast, a remove, some vegetables or such like and you might be be a tad jaded. Enter….a ham. ‘Not more meat!’ you cry, weeping tears of mutton fat from your buttery brow. But no, for it is ‘en surprise’…. Garrett describes it as a sponge cake, hollowed out from the bottom and filled with sweetmeats or cream, glazed with chocolate for the colour, and garlanded with candied flowers. The corks are yet more cake, (and could also be filled with cream), while the champagne bottles are real. Quite obviously, this could be called a bold and clarion challenge.

Anyway, it was obsess over that or the small fortress made of fried bread, with carrot cannons and truffle cannon balls from Soyer’s Gastronomic Regenerator, and I know my limits.

This picture was, I think it can be said, directly responsible for the mould purchase. For what came next I can only really blame myself.

Cake in oven
Cake in oven
Cake out of oven
Cake out of oven
Cake filled with sweetmeats
Cake filled with sweetmeats
Cake....CAKE
Cake….CAKE

The cake was a standard fatless savoy recipe, the sweetmeats lemon and cinnamon (essentially they are flavoured marzipan), and the flowers are clary sage (uncandied – it was 10pm by this point). I had a lot of fun.

Hams seem to be pretty popular for this kind of treatment. Garrett also has a swan ‘en surprise’, and this kind of fantasy fun food has a very long history. There are, of course, the mock foods born of necessity – the infamous wartime ‘mock goose’, various mock bacons, and the various vegetarian foods which are made to look like meat (why?). But there is also a lengthy tradition of making one thing look like another. From medieval manuscripts come things like fake guts – actually sweet, but look like something spilled its stomach on the table. Then there’s the  cockentrice, which is somewhat different, given it doesn’t actually look like anything real, but it’s pretty cool anyway (there’s a brilliant explanation, with pictures and commentary, from the inestimable Richard Fitch here). I’ve previously done a meat mellon from Eliza Moxon. And then there is a whole range of cakes or pastes sculpted to look savoury – and ham is right up there for your base item.

I think one reason is its colour – hams are bright, striped, and have yellow and red and brown and the potential for some breadcrumb action. Another is that they were often served cold, at ball suppers and the like, so the lack of steam or cover wouldn’t give the game away too early on. And another may well be that serving a whole ham wasn’t that common – hams were used for cooking with, or in sandwiches, or as luncheons or suppers, and wouldn’t often have appeared at the kind of very expensive dinner at which these sweet fakes would have made an appearance. Basically, if you can afford to have a cook spend all afternoon making marzipan look like bacon, you can afford to serve your guests something more upmarket than ham. So, double surprise – ‘good lord! a ham, how plebeian. but – OMG – it’s CAKE!’. etc.

Incidentally, I’m not convinced the illusion really worked. In the case of the cake, diners would have been expecting a sweet course, so they would’ve guessed within seconds. In the case of the one below – well, that’s more interesting. I cooked it at an event at Kew Palace, and in dim light, a lot of people did mistake it for a lump of pig….

Here’s the final ham cake. And here’s a Georgian/early Victorian sham ham made of almond paste, just to ring the changes.

The final cake.
The final cake.
Sham ham (Ude, French Cook).
Sham ham (Ude, French Cook).